At some point in my editing, I got into my head that it was generally redundant to have “either” in a phrase with “or” in it.
I didn’t think it was necessarily correct, and I’m sure it’s not something I invented, so I must have been told such a tale, likely one with a specific example that morphed within my mind into law. But it’s always bugged me whenever I’ve encountered this situation in my editing.
“The congressman plans to make an announcement on Thursday or Friday, sources say.”
Here, the connotation is clear that he won’t do both, but the congressman could also pick another day, and he/she could make no announcement. It’s not a closed list of possibilities. “Either” isn’t wrong, really, but is it a word saved? I think so.
Sometimes, though, “either” changes the meaning. To whit:
“Will George or Allen be attending?”
To my ear, this sentence implies a lack of knowledge of the parties; both may wish to attend, or either one, or neither. Placing “either” at least implies that the answer must, and can only be, one of them wishing to attend. Conversely, one’s meaning could be such that “either” is imperative in the example sentence. Context, context.
In case you’re wondering, “Working With Words” and AP Stylebook don’t seem to address these issues head-on — possibly because “either” would not make any of these examples indecipherable. And strictly grammatically, I could be wrong. I’m instead approaching this from a usability standpoint, but disagreement is welcome.
Again, this isn’t something that appears to be that difficult, except to me, perhaps. Using “neither/nor” correctly is often a bigger challenge. Still, it’s a reminder to rethink occasionally why we’re editing the way we are, lest we fall into the traps of our own wayward minds.